• On April 27, The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) hosted its third annual Disruptive Innovation Awards. Honorees included Dr. Steven Curley of the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation and Twitter Co-founder Jack Dorsey
  • The theory of Disruptive Innovation dictates that new applications or utilities to existing products or services will impact — in fact alter — the marketplace in measurable ways 
  • TFF Co-founder, Craig Hatkoff, along with others believe that political polarization in America can be mitigated by applying the techniques of Disruptive Innovation, especially through engaging in dialogues with social icons like Glenn Beck
  • Further, famed economist Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is weighed against Disruptive Innovation as a means to create a just, Capitalist society

Most people think of innovation in terms of technological, rather than social or political applications, but recent insight gleaned from the Tribeca Film Festival’s (TFF) Disruptive Innovation Awards, held Friday, April 27, may shatter that preconception. What’s more, that very insight may be best illustrated through an ongoing dialogue with Glenn Beck and one of the film festival’s founders. Intrigued?  For reference, first consider the following information on the theory of disruptive innovation.

The theory of Disruptive Innovation 

Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments

Clayton Christensen

Coined by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, the term “disruptive innovation” is perhaps not common in modern day vernacular, but it is something you have experienced before and likely will again throughout all stages of life. Counterintuitively, disruptive innovations do not necessarily find origin in a specific “invention,” rather they foster a different utility for a pre-existing product, service or technology, effectively creating an opportunity for great change that leads to a brand new market. Ultimately, the innovation “disrupts” the status-quo, transforming modern-day life.

The automobile has often been cited as an example of a disruptive innovation. Although a ground-breaking technological invention at the time, its high initial cost prohibited the product from penetrating daily life and commerce. It was not until Ford motor company introduced its affordable Model T in the early 20th century that the market for horse-drawn carriages was “disrupted” with the widespread adoption of motor vehicles. The automobile itself is a technological innovation, while Ford’s system of mass-producing cost-efficient cars from which the masses could benefit, is a disruptive one. Other examples include the iPod, which disrupted the CD market, and Wikipedia, which disrupted the market of traditional encyclopedic volumes such as the Britannica series.

The Tribeca Film Festival’s Disruptive Innovation Awards

For the last three years, under the stewardship of TFF co-founder, Craig Hatkoff,Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments the Disruptive Innovation Awards have recognized companies and individuals who have distinguished themselves by successfully disrupting markets to effect change in the worlds of business, technology, social justice and the arts. The honorees represented a broad spectrum of innovators from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to members of DARPA. Notably, one of this year’s honorees was Dr. Steven Curley who has carried on the late John Kanzius’ pioneering medical research in the use of high frequency radio waves to kill cancer cells. You might recall The Blaze and Glenn Beck’s extensive coverage of the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation, as well as Beck’s involvement in bringing much needed awareness to the project.

While this year’s honorees and the fields they represented made sense from an innovation-standpoint, one of the key questions that emerged is how can the theory of disruptive innovation address the political polarization occurring in modern-day America. It may seem an impossible feat, but Hatkoff, along with Rabi Irwin Cula of the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning (CLAL), and The Economist’s Matthew Bishop, led a discussion on this very subject.

Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and how it relates to capitalism 

Invoking economist-pioneer Adam Smith’s lesser-known volume, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” the three delved into the power of perception, and more pointedly, “moral judgments.” They dissected the role each play in modern day society and how shattering preconceptions is the key to breaking down the barriers created by polarization.

Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral SentimentsWhile many consider Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” his greatest achievement, Smith himself saw the “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” to be his magnum opus, as he intended it to be the underpinning for The Wealth of Nations, explaining how man strives to be virtuous through engaging in moral and proper conduct. This is discerned, according to Smith, through becoming an impartial spectator of others.  He argued that while independent-self interest is in everyone’s nature, humans also innately share the same emotions and instinctual desire to please others while gaining affection, approval and understanding of their own. This, he posited, could only be created through fostering sympathy among even the strangest of bedfellows. Through planting the seed of self-doubt that causes one to question his or her own perceptions and morality, humility is thus fostered.

Shattering perceptions and creating self-doubt

Both Hatkoff and Rabbi Kula argue that the key to forging greater understanding of one’s ideological opposite is through engendering a sense of sympathy for one another. To illustrate this point, they asked participants to share their observations on the following images:


Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments

Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral SentimentsTribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments

At first glance participants were roughly split fifty-fifty between seeing the duck and seeing the rabbit. A review of the second image revealed that the majority of observers saw a rabbit and by the third image, the results were completely reversed.

To drive the point home, Hatkoff and Kula also used Joseph Albers’ famed green color block image:

Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments

The laws of physics dictate that the small box in the right plank appears to be a lighter shade of green than that to the left, when in fact the green hue is exactly the same on both sides.

The exercise is meant to underscore how human beings can look at the exact same object yet see something entirely different. Kula argues that through self-awareness and, more pointedly, self-doubt raised through engaging in simple exercises like duck-rabbit, the very basis for political polarization can be mitigated.

Can Disruptive Innovation mitigate political polarization? 

Taking the lesson further, Hatkoff unveiled a clip featuring someone familiar to Blaze readers, but who was, surprisingly, unidentifiable to many in the audience. While the video featured below first came from a conference hosted by The Economist in late-March, the session I attended featured much of the same content. The point of interest begins near the 12:00 minute-mark.

Hatkoff, who notes his ongoing discussions with Beck have been a moving experience for him, explains the exercise reveals that taking the time to listen to others with whom you do not agree can eventually shatter initial false images and first impressions. Consequently, people often find they share more common ground than not. Speaking to only like-minded  individuals is not favorable to producing disruptive change, posits Hatkoff. Rather, the creation of a more robust, flourishing society can be achieved through taking unprecedented and inventive approaches to conflict resolution.

In examining the theory of Disruptive Innovation in the context of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, one might consider GBTV as quite disruptive. Using the Internet to circumvent traditional broadcast media provides viewers an opportunity to connect with a more diverse array of information in new and more efficient ways. Consider the following excerpt from the Wall Street Jorunal’s profile of GBTV this past March:

GBTV, which jumped on the scene in September, is expected to bring in at least $40 million in revenue this year, supported by advertising and more than 300,000 subscribers paying as much as $9.95 a month for full access to GBTV, according to a person close to the company. While it is significantly smaller than his audience at Fox News, it’s still more than an established network like CNBC, which drew an average of 189,000 viewers over the course of the total day in February, according to Nielsen.

Through new media platforms, it is possible, according to both Hatkoff and Kula, for people – be they subject matter experts or cultural icons – to share powerful, transformative narratives that effectively diffuse much of the polarization occurring in the nation today. “We don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt anymore,” notes Kula. “We need to create a culture where we do that again.”

“We can have a series of conversations where we may not agree on everything,” adds Hatkoff, “but our shared core-values” provide a bridge that can enable us to better work together.”

The intended take-away here is that fostering a culture which encourages creative problem solvers and intelligent risk takers to act while promoting a moral and ethical entrepreneurial spirit may be the only path forward.

Is Disruptive Innovation a way to bridge the gap between entrepreneurship and government?

Tribeca Film Festivals Disruptive Innovation Panel Invokes Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments

Craig Hatkoff

In terms of government’s role in Disruptive Innovation, Hatkoff believes that while individuals mustn’t wait for government to solve all problems, it is not necessary to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” either. He cites TFF honoree, Street Bump, as an example where individual citizens and local government came together using an off-the-shelf software application to locate and repair the city’s numerous potholes.  Under this model, stakeholders (in this instance, Boston residents) were given leeway in devising the most creative, cost-efficient approach to solving a genuine problem while local government merely provided the tools. The collaborative effort saved the city money and created a sense of civic pride among residents.

Hatkoff suggests that projects like Street Bump reveal how Disruptive Innovation enables government and citizens to work in tandem, yielding measurable results. Ultimately, of course, creating disruptive change requires that entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists and government bureaucrats alike step outside their comfort zones.

Other examples of innovations that have disrupted existing markets include citizen journalism, where ordinary people are empowered to capture and disseminate news instantly to a wide audience with the use of only a smart phone; and political candidates organizing grassroots movements and fundraising initiatives via online applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Moral Capitalism

All of the disruptive technologies featured above fall well within the framework of Adam Smith’s notion of moral and responsible capitalism. Dr. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute points out that capitalists “serve their own interests only by serving other people’s.” He explains this point using the example of making a product as simple as the cotton t-shirt. The production involves the collaboration of “farmers, truckers, designers, machine-makers, weavers, dyers, packagers, exporters, retailers and many others from all over the world,” Butler observes. “Each contributes their effort willingly, for the reward it bring them; and their efforts are coordinated by the market to produce benefits for us all.”

Perhaps if ordinary individuals, corporations and governments can learn to work in such a way and find common ground as simple t-shirt makers do, there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.  That is certainly the hope of Christensen, Hatkoff, Kula, Beck, and others who seek to carry out the virtues of disruptive innovation as they play out in a moral free market. These are the ideas and actions that would make Adam Smith proud.